Universities, globally, have been cast as key actors in dealing with the many effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. As centres of excellence in research, education and innovation, their warrant for this role is long established and it is a reasonable expectation, post-COVID-19, that the higher education sector will indeed step up in these areas of strength. But we should ask more of our universities, requiring contributions from them that are more deeply embedded in their social responsibilities as ‘anchor’ institutions. This local, regional and even national community dimension for an anchor institution is captured in Wilson’s characterisation as ‘an important presence in the community; a key cultural centre; a major impact on employment; a gatherer and spender of significant revenue; a role as a major employer; a purchaser of goods and services; an attractor of businesses and talented individuals’(Wilson 2012: 73). Reaching out and into the community are not wholly unfamiliar activities for most universities. However, post-COVID-19 financial stringencies may tempt them into disproportionate efforts to try to recoup lost revenue - to the detriment of existing or new community-focused activities. There is a certain inevitability about this type of reaction if cash-strapped universities do not reflect sufficiently on the challenges and opportunities for change that the post-COVID-19 period will present. They may elect to engage partly or not at all in tackling social challenges that attract less revenue rewards. One such challenge is the need to improve social cohesion and trust in the system, for example by improving access to higher education for disadvantaged groups and to move away from the perceived sole purpose of enabling ‘… the individual accrual of cultural capital which can be traded up into wealth for an elite, and instead seek to understand and challenge inequality, injustice, exclusion and othering’ (Maginess 2020). Universities, post-COVID-19 must also do more to improve community health and wellbeing, address digital deficits in their host communities, and counter community ignorance that is sustained by inadequate education. It is not unreasonable to argue that, over the past decade or so, inadequate education has contributed to enabling populist movements to manipulate whole sections of society and undermine the very core of democratic society.


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Cite as

Gardner, J. 2020, 'Universities as Catalysts of Post-Covid Recovery and Renewal in Communities', Building a More Sustainable and Democratic Future: Higher Education's Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. http://hdl.handle.net/1893/31978

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Last updated: 17 June 2022
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